Pubdate: Fri, 10 Sep 2004
Source: Texas Observer (TX)
Copyright: 2004 The Texas Observer
Author: Jake Bernstein
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


Could the era of Texas' notorious regional narcotics task forces be ending? 
Possibly. A number of city officials across the state have reflected on the 
expensive lesson learned by the City of Amarillo-which earlier this year 
paid a $5 million settlement to victims of the much-discredited Tulia drug 
sting-and have pulled out of their local task forces in order to avoid the 
negative publicity, scandalous headlines, and hefty civil suits that seem 
to plague these law enforcement entities.

On August 31, the North Central Texas Narcotics Task Force, which covered 
Denton and Grayson Counties, ceased operations thanks to a July decision by 
Denton County Sheriff Weldon Lucas to disband the 15-year-old agency. As 
part of the move, the task force is returning what remains of its $418,738 
Byrne grant to Gov. Rick Perry's office, which administers Byrne funds. 
August 31 also marked the end of the South Plains Regional Narcotics Task 
Force, which has conducted narcotics investigations and stings in Lubbock 
and 17 outlying counties for more than 15 years. In mid-August, the Lubbock 
Police Department pulled out of South Plains and forfeited its role as 
administrator of the task force's $655,650 Byrne grant.

In explaining their decision to withdraw, Lubbock police department 
officials cited rising insurance premiums and fees, the need for officers 
to focus on city drug cases, and an excessive expenditure of officers' time 
and travel to cover such a vast area. However, increased liability risks 
were also a major factor. Lubbock lies just south of the area once served 
by the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, which employed 
Tom Coleman-the officer primarily responsible for the botched up Tulia 
sting. As the Panhandle task force's grant administrator, Amarillo became 
financially liable for Coleman's actions, even though the sheriff's 
department of neighboring Swisher County hired him. The Panhandle task 
force disbanded this spring.

Moving southward, the City of Laredo has pulled out of the Laredo 
Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force, also forfeiting its role as grant 
administrator and reducing the task force by half. The Laredo Morning Times 
reported that the Laredo city manager and police chief said their reasons 
for withdrawing were "purely economical and budgetary." Webb County will 
administer the $1.14 million Byrne grant for the task force, which also 
covers Zapata County. Meanwhile, the DPS stepped into the area once covered 
by the troubled 81st Judicial District Narcotics Task Force by creating the 
11-county Regional Narcotics Task Force, launched in July. The DPS will 
oversee the new task force, which includes San Antonio and South Texas; 
this year it received more than $1.5 million in Byrne grant start-up funds 
from Perry's office. Unlike traditional task forces, it will target drug 
trafficking organizations instead of low-level, individual dealers.

In the midst of change-much of which comes as good news for task force 
critics, including the ACLU of Texas-some folks still can't let go. One is 
state Rep. Delwin Jones (R-Lubbock), who on August 23 called a meeting in 
Levelland with representatives from the DPS and law enforcement agencies 
still participating in the South Plains task force in an attempt to find a 
replacement grantee. No other task force participant accepted the job, 
leading Jones to look to the DPS for assistance. The Lubbock 
Avalanche-Journal also reports that Jones plans to introduce legislation 
this session to keep the South Plains task force running.

Perhaps it's time for Rep. Jones to reread his copy of Too Far Off Task, 
the 2002 report by the ACLU of Texas that cataloged two dozen task force 
scandals from Tulia to Hearne. But if Jones needs a fresh scandal to 
convince him that the task force model simply doesn't work, he might try 
calling up Blair Davis, a Houston-area landscape contractor. In late July, 
Davis was visited by several pistol-wielding officers from the Byrne-funded 
Harris County Organized Crime and Narcotics Task Force. The landscape 
contractor's "crime" was growing hibiscus-which looks somewhat like 
marijuana, but with white flowers-in plain view in his front yard. No word 
yet on whether Davis will sue.
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